Michael Church London
The History of Michael Church
September 1992 marks the centenary of a unique church building in London at 131 Burton Road, Brixton. Now known as Michael Church, it had been purpose-built as a school with a hall suitable for use as a place of worship. It was among the first buildings constructed to further the ideals of “The Academy”, a movement within the organized New Church. As far as we are aware it is the only one of the original edifices remaining in use. It continues, as it has done throughout the century, to be the home of a congregation with ideals and forms of worship stemming from The Academy movement.
To appreciate the complex history associated with this building, we need first to uncover a few of the roots of this Academy movement.
By the middle of the 19th century the New Church (a body which based its tenets of faith on what it understood to be truths revealed to the world through Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) had congregations of members scattered world-wide. In England these congregations were under the ‘umbrella’ of the “General Conference” of the New Church, while in North America most were organized under the “General Convention” of the New Church – both bodies essentially with congregational forms of government.
The Academy in America
The Academy movement arose in Pennsylvania in the late 1850’s led by Rev. William H. Benade, an ordaining minister in the General Convention. In its early days it took a form similar to a private but not secret club to which no new members were admitted except by the unanimous vote of the others. It resembled a species of scientific fellowship which met to study doctrinal matters in depth aimed at internal evangelization and a deeper understanding of what it considered a Divine revelation. It stressed the authoritative nature of this revelation and looked to its ordained priesthood for enlightened perception and leadership.
The establishment of schools in which its children would be educated in harmony with these ideas was also emphasized and by 1877 The Academy had applied for and obtained a legal charter from the state of Pennsylvania giving it the rights of:
1) Propagating the Heavenly doctrines of the New Jerusalem and establishing the New Church signified in the Apocalypse by the New Jerusalem
2) Promoting education in all its forms
3) Educating young men for the ministry
4) Establishing a library.
In September of that year its divinity school was opened in Philadelphia. Most Academy members led by Benade were then also members of the General Church of Pennsylvania – a body which under Convention rules had the power to establish an episcopal form of ministry and to receive as members any society anywhere which wished to be associated with it. Benade was elected its President and in 1873 took the title of Bishop.
All of which would appear to be very remote from our little church in Brixton! So – how did it all happen?
The Academy in Britain
Apparently a serial publication published by this Academy and called “Words for the New Church” first drew the attention of others in both the General Convention in the USA and the General Conference in Britain to the doctrinal emphasis of this new group. Trans-oceanic travel spread the knowledge too as visitors travelled back and forth and met in each others houses. Dr Rudolf L. Tafel, a German-trained pedagogue who had been a charter member of the Academy became a tutor at the New Church Theological School in London. He also had a pastorate at the Camden Road Society in London and a small group of interested potential “Academicians” began to form. In an attempt to publicize the new Academy in Britain, Tafel awarded (in the name of the Academy) the degree of B.Th. to Robert J. Tilson on his graduation from the Conference theological school in 1879.
As could have been expected this action stirred up a hornets nest and not only was Tafel removed as tutor at the college but a bitter and vitriolic correspondence appeared in print on both sides of the Atlantic. In the midst of the furore, Rev. Tilson took up his pastorate – first at Liverpool and six years later (1885) with the Camberwell congregation in its fine premises at Flodden Road in Brixton. Tilson was blessed with considerable talents as a missionary and pastor and under his leadership the congregation grew and prospered. Not only did he provide leadership to the small group of Academy followers scattered throughout Britain, but he began to spread its ideals to his congregation.
The General Church of the Advent of the Lord
On both sides of the Atlantic the strongly felt differences in interpretation of the meaning of the Writings became more and more clear and apparently unreconcilable. Friction grew and by November 1890, led by Bishop Benade the American Academy members withdrew from the General Convention and re-organized themselves as “The General Church of the Advent of the Lord”. Benade, now old and infirm, held that this new body really consisted of two churches – one therefore representing the external branch and known as “The General Church of the Academy”, and the other being more internal and known as “The General Church of the Advent of the Lord”.
While this was occurring in September 1890, an Academy School under the leadership of Rev. C. Bostock had been opened in London using as premises rooms in the Masonic Hall in Camberwell not far from the Flodden Road Society and patronized by the children of some of its members.
However, open animosity from some members of the General Conference toward the Academy’s interpretation of the nature of the Writings (and especially of the work “Conjugial Love”) became more and more vehement. In the summer of 1889 Bishop Benade became seriously ill while passing through London on his way to the Continent. Leading American Academy members also on tour rallied around and eight members were cordially welcomed at a special gathering of the Camberwell Society. Despite the kindness and cordiality, the problem of the genuine differences was not solved. To preserve peace, on March 5th 1891, Tilson tendered his resignation as pastor of the Camberwell Society.
Fifty-nine members of the congregation joined him and on 28th March 1891 they re-commenced worshipping together in rooms at the Masonic Hall. Tilson advised his followers to join the General Church of the Advent of the Lord if they felt ready to do so, but advised those who felt unsure to take time for instruction and thought first. He himself felt it his duty and great privilege to seek a home in the General Church of the Advent of the Lord.
Back to Burton Road
But where was this “home” to be? Many members of his “new” group already lived in the area. Centred around the attractive new Myatts Park, the Minet Estate was just being developed and seemed an ideal location.
Among the members of the Academy in the London area was C. J. Whittington – a successful city financier, amateur musician and talented composer. As member and organist of the Camden Road Society under R. F. Tafel he had become a leading and active supporter of the Academy ideals and for several years had been in close contact with the leaders in Pennsylvania and at their behest had begun to set the words of the Psalms to original new music to be used in worship.
In common with many other Victorian gentlemen, he was father to a large family and concerned with their education. All of these qualities proved to be to the benefit of the nascent society for by September 1891 he wrote to friends in America that he had secured a very good site in Burton Road on which he proposed to erect
a School House – a two storey building containing a hall or school room about 40 X 25 feet in the upper part and with appropriate offices below. The hall is to be used on Sunday for worship conducted under the auspices of the General Church of the Advent of the Lord.
Plans were apparently quickly drawn up and approved and by September 1892 the building was ready for occupation.
Little is known of the details of the actual construction – neither the name of its architect nor builder – just that it was on a long leasehold of ninety years for an annual rent of £25; that the building had cost about £1,000 and to quote Whittington’s own words:
I have not gone in for anything extravagant. I will offer the building to the Academy and General Church rent free. I shall pay the ground rent and the building will remain my property but to put matters on a business footing I will let the building to Rev. E. C. Bostock at a nominal sum subject to the usual notice on either side.
And so our centennial story begins…
Chapter 1 – The Early Years
The Dedication Ceremony
Apparently the school building was completed in the summer of 1892 but the official opening was delayed to coincide with the beginning of the new school term. The dedication ceremony on 4th September 1892 took the form of a solemn service of worship led jointly by the Rev. R. J. Tilson as pastor of the congregation and the Rev. E. C. Bostock as the Academy’s appointed headmaster of the school. Their first act was to place beautifully bound copies of “The Word” and “The True Christian Religion” in their original languages on the repository. While excerpts from Psalms set to music by Mr Whittington were sung by the congregation, Mr Tilson left the chancel and returned from the vestry with further copies of the Writings which he handed to Mr Bostock to place in the book case provided behind the altar. There followed a prayer of solemn dedication and as the congregation sang the anthem “Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem”, both priests returned briefly to the vestry. A regular service of worship then followed in the order set out in the Academy’s Liturgy. Mr Bostock preached the sermon on the text of “Holiness to Jehovah” – a translation of the Hebrew letters painted in bright gold letters on the face of the new altar. Another service of worship was held that same evening at which Mr Tilson preached on the subject of “Tarry ye in Jerusalem until ye be endowed with power from on high”. The custom of holding services both morning and evening continued until the second World War.
A “Feast of Charity”
The joy and excitement surrounding this new home in which the congregation’s hopes and ideals could be ultimated, was further celebrated the next evening. Upwards of 100 members and visiting friends sat down to a meal termed “a feast of charity” in the church hall. Decorations were lavish and included banners hanging from the ceiling which bore on one side sentences from the Word and on the reverse significant Latin words from the Writings, all executed in white silk on a red backing. Toasts and speeches followed in traditional banquet style. Mr Tilson was heartily cheered as he rose to speak – words reflecting the emotions of the occasion:
Truly we have been led on in a most merciful way; our present position is such as we could never have expected in so short a time…. The past we have left forever…. We are united in the sincere belief that the only foundation upon which the church can properly be built is the acknowledgement of the Lord in the Gospel of His Second Advent – even in the acknowledgement that the Writings of the Church are of Divine Authority….
He then continued with words which all too soon proved to be prophetic:
It will be a mistake to think that the days of combat are over. Combat is the necessary experience for growth. Individually and collectively combats are necessary and will inevitably come…. I trust that sincere confidence will be cherished in each other’s purposes and ends and full respect be given to freedom of thought and opinion so that whatever differences may arise, we shall be sure of an amicable and just settlement.
Mr Whittington was also heartily cheered as he rose to respond to the toast “success to this building and its uses”. Noting that although in a natural sense the building belonged to him, he went on
but in a higher sense this building belongs to the use to which it is devoted and it is indeed a pleasure to us all to see the use provided with a fitting external. Not that we look to externals to effect anything but they do affect…. It is perhaps not quite right to say ‘long may the building remain dedicated to its present use’ for its capacity is but small, and we may well be permitted to hope that the day may come when it will be inadequate to its purpose. But increase in numbers is not what we look for so much as increase in truth and goodness by means of the educational uses we have undertaken. For such internal increase and true success we look to nothing but faithfulness to the Divine Truth. One hundred years later his hope still remains.
The Opening of the School
The final act of dedication took place on the following day with the opening of the Academy School for its autumn session. Twenty-five scholars and a number of parents and friends attended the opening exercises which took the form of a service of worship in the school hall. Again, they sang music composed by Mr Whittington, including a Hebrew anthem and the 8th Psalm. In his address to the scholars, Rev. Bostock explained the meaning and significance of the various items of chancel furnishing – especially of the altar with the opened Word upon it.
The Burton Road Congregation
And so the happy society began its new life. Many of its families lived near at hand in the relatively new Minet Estate centred around Myatts Field Park or in Brixton, Stockwell and Streatham. The school house was ideally sited. Behind a sheltering garden wall an open space separated it from Longfield community Hall next door and across the road stood the very elegant Minet Library – alas, sadly, destroyed by incendiary bombing during World War II.
Given these circumstances, a true sense of community quickly emerged. For not only was it possible to have a day school and two services each Sunday, but evening meetings, theological classes, socials and even bi-weekly singing practices became regular events. Letters in the Academy Archives in the U.S.A. reflect Mr Whittington’s love and devotion as he composed music for new translations of Biblical passages which they sent to him. Although some of this music is fairly complicated, under his instruction the Burton Road congregation (as it was soon called) set to with a will to learn – even difficult four part harmony which occasionally involved individual rehearsals for tenors and basses only at the pastor’s home in nearby Inglis Street. Within a year or so it was not unknown for two or three of the Psalms to be sung at one festive service accompanied not only by a harmonium and a grand piano but by other instruments played chiefly by the older members of Mr Whittington’s own family.
But it must not be imagined that all was serious study and solemnity. We read of garden parties, yearly outings, Sunday afternoon teas and lively evening socials. An extant diary of G. E. Stebbing written in 1896 indicates that jolly social evenings lasting until 11:45 were common – to quote but one example:
Thur. Sept 24:1A Simple Solitaire Game – As fine a day as yesterday but not so windy. Church social at 8:00 – large attendance. Address from American priests meeting read by Mr Bostock… The National Anthem sung (60th year of reign). The church toasted and Ern replied – refreshments and dancing. I danced Lancers with Grace Williams, Quad. with Miss Dowling, Polka-waltz with Florrie, – Miss Gunton my corner in Lancers – Miss Baker and Miss Gunton in Quadrille – very jolly evening – left at 11:50. E U M and I saw Miss D. to Green (raining) Bed at 1:35.
The happy prosperous sphere was apparently evident to strangers for in a newspaper clipping from the period – one in a series entitled “Byways of Faith” – this “Newest Church” is described. After giving details of some of the distinctive features of its beliefs and rituals, its author notes:
the snug little church, with its bright interior, its hearty well-dressed congregation, its organ and grand piano, its flowers and carpets and cassocks positively refreshed the eye…. And it must be owned that Mr Whittington’s excellent music, without being quite ‘Wagner-like’ is most expressively devotional, and a high spirit of reverence obtained throughout the whole service.
The Tilson Years
Mr Tilson led the congregation (which as yet had not been formally organized in any real way) with zeal from his understanding of the true role of the priesthood as promulgated by Bishop Benade on the basis of his perceived knowledge of the Writings. Financial support for the priesthood was considered by Tilson to be an affirmative offering of love and respect from the members, given voluntarily only through the weekly offertories. Any committees (consisting of men only) needed to take care of business matters relating to the school or society were appointed by him as pastor.
In spiritual matters he inspired his congregation to be aware of quite elaborate details of ritual which he felt were necessary for correspondential reasons, and individuals were encouraged to contribute to these. The chancel furnishings were designed by F. Elphick who himself painted the striking motif on the canopy above the altar. In addition to the banners already mentioned, various embroidered falls for the pulpit and lectern were created for special services by Mrs Tilson. Mr Misson made and contributed a marble baptismal font on a matching plinth and the Criagie family donated a brass plate to receive the offertory – carefully designed in shape, size, material and in the colouring of its enamelled inserts to be correspondential of spiritual ideas. Special boxes were made and donated to house the stoles and robes of the priest in the vestry. Albert and Harry Petersen chose with care the details of the elaborate wooden stand they made for the offertory box. Although the meanings are now often forgotten by many, all of these items are still in regular use by today’s congregation. So too are the original, simple, sturdy benches made of a now rare long-grained American pine. (Slight ‘modernization’ in the 1950’s included the addition of padded seats to prevent ladies from snagging their stockings and an extra board at the back to prevent little children from falling through!)
The Seeds of Discontent
Yet within a few short years problems began to arise. A few of these related to the running of the school but essentially they stemmed from Tilson’s adulation of and loyalty to Bishop Benade, that very charismatic leader who had been so greatly loved by Academy followers on both sides of the Atlantic. Since suffering a stroke while visiting London in 1889, Benade had appeared to be becoming increasingly autocratic. Then too there were a few dissenting voices among both priests and laymen alike regarding his proposals for the establishment of two churches – the Academy to be an internal Church and the General Church of the Advent of the Lord to be directed to the performance of more external uses.
In 1893 Benade returned to London from Philadelphia and on 23rd April 1894, in the presence of the Burton Road congregation he was married to Miss Kate Gibbs, an Academy member who had befriended him during his illness in 1889. Prior to this event, Benade had written to his Vice Chancellor in Pennsylvania of “uneasiness and disquietude in England arising from personal causes and especially from a wave of democratic feeling which has passed over the country”. Stressing that the Academy’s hierarchy rested on the doctrine of the government of the church by the priesthood, he established a “particular church of the Academy” under Tilson in London to as it were ‘screen’ new potential members by receiving them probationally into his society. At the same time he replaced Bostock as the Academy’s superintendent of the London school and transferred this job to Tilson instead.
The seeds were there for future problems. However, in the summer of 1894 all seemed relatively peaceful despite financial problems which for a time threatened the closure of the school. In August nearly all of the priests from the Academy in America came to England to hold a series of five day meetings with Chancellor Benade at Burton Road. How exciting and stimulating it must have been for the little congregation to meet these distant friends in person!
The social highlight of the meetings was held in the church hall on 9th August to mark the recent publication of the Psalmody. Bishop W. F. Pendleton presented a suitably inscribed silver loving cup to Mr Whittington as a token of his fine music which had contributed so much joy and reverence to their services of worship. Would that the harmony of the music had also reigned in the hearts of the congregation!
Burton Road Divided
But alas, this was not to be. As the results of Father Benade’s stroke became increasingly evident, the priests in America gradually withdrew from his leadership to set up a new General Church of the New Jerusalem under Bishop W. F. Pendleton with the Academy as its educational arm. So too was the little Burton Road congregation split. Despite the valiant attempts of Mr Whittington to act as peace maker, the issues were too strongly and emotionally held; in 1898 a minority of members under the leadership of F. Elphick withdrew. They worshipped for a time under lay leadership in private homes and in rented accommodations and set up a school of their own for their children. In 1900 they organized themselves as a society of the newly formed General Church and in 1901 happily received the Rev. Andrew Czerny as their pastor and as headmaster for their school.
At Burton Road, however, Mr Tilson and the remaining members of his congregation maintained staunch loyalty to Benade who by this time had settled in Streatham to spend his declining years. In 1898 Mr Bostock left to join the newly re-organized General Church in America leaving the little school further reduced. It remained small under Miss K. M. Dowling as sole teacher and Mr Tilson as its headmaster until its eventual closure due to lack of pupils in 1927.
When the split occurred in 1898, for the first time the Burton Road Society organized itself formally as a definite “Society of the New Church”. Members could be received upon signing a declaration of faith and purposes which included a statement of affirmation of a belief in the Divine Authority of the Doctrines of the New Church and of a willingness to co-operate faithfully with fellow members of the society under the direction and government of its priest. In 1899 a legal Indenture was drawn up, signed and witnessed appointing legal trustees for the society and defining their role.
And so, within a period of a few short years, the original Academy society begun with such enthusiasm had become two: the larger group remained as a completely independent society at Burton Road; the smaller eventually found a home at a house in Peckam Rye where they worshipped until 1925. Each group continued to run schools where their children could be taught under Academy ideals and the descendants of these children, particularly of the Peckham Rye group are now scattered throughout the General Church world wide. Although numerically the smaller of the two, the Peckham Rye Society was part of the larger body of the General Church in Britain whose members from Colchester and elsewhere met annually for joyful Assemblies. The Burton Road congregation remained alone as an independent group centring one of its main annual festivities around the birthday of Bishop Benade on 3rd October – even for many year after his death in 1905.
During the years which followed, occasional attempts at co-operative efforts and even reconciliation were offered both by the Camberwell Society at Flodden Road and the General Church group at Peckham Rye, but these were firmly rebuffed by Mr Tilson. In a pastoral address in October 1909 given at a celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of his entry into the priesthood he stated emphatically:
reunion with either body could only take place by the sacrifice of the most vital, most distinctive principles; and by a profanation, on our part, of truths we have acknowledged.
So, while the founding pastor also continued to recommend charitable understanding and tolerance of each others’ views, the basic personality clashes and differences in the understanding of the nature of church government kept emotions high and the two groups apart.
Progress at Burton Road
In a small booklet, it is not possible to go into much detail about the history of two societies so we shall have to confine ourselves to Burton Road alone.
A quick summary of events of interest occurring during its next epoch show that the Whittington family withdrew in 1902 and generously gave the society the free use of the building for a nominal rent of £1.10.0 per year. In 1912 the building was officially registered for the solemnization of marriages and the church was registered as a place of public worship. From 1914 to January 1920 the garden adjoining Longfield Hall and the two small school rooms were let to the L.C.C. for £1.5.0 per week – a welcome addition to a tight budget.
The Great War with its heavy casualties deeply affected most individual families and when it was over a subscription was raised for a brass memorial roll of honour on which were inscribed the names of young friends and members who had given their lives. Unveiled on 16th May, 1920 it bore thirteen names, including those of the eldest son of Rev. William H. Acton and three sons of Rev. G. Ottley. (These two priests had remained alone with Tilson under the banner of Benade and over the years had taken services at Burton Road during the pastor’s rather frequent episodes of ill health.)
In 1917 Mr Whittington offered the building to the society for outright purchase at half its original cost. Various individual members loaned money to make up the £800 purchase price and a deed of conveyance was signed naming contributors Mr Tilson, Miss Shaw and E. W. Misson as trustees.
Thus the years passed and history moved on under the guidance of Providence. In August 1919 the then Bishop of the General Church, the Rt. Rev. N. D. Pendleton, visiting in London, according to records, “accidently” met Revs. Tilson and Ottley. The result was a long and very amicable talk. Following it both priests were drawn to re-consider the possibility of joining the General Church. This they soon did and Tilson began to suggest that members of his congregation did likewise. In fact while he and Mr Ottley were abroad in May 1920 attending the clergy meetings in Bryn Athyn for the first time, seventeen members of the Burton Road congregation joined. Bishop Pendleton offered to accept the society as a whole into the General Church if it so wished. At its A.G.M. in June 1921 after much discussion it was agreed to accept this offer, to adopt a new set of rules, and to join the General Church under the name of the Michael Society. So on July 31st that same year at its first joint assembly with other General Church members held in Longfield Hall, the Michael Society was officially received into the General Church. In 1922 at the next A.G.M. one member announced that he preferred the sound of Michael Church rather than Michael Society. Apparently most members concurred in this for from then on this change appears to have been accepted and Michael Church it has remained.
In the Autumn, members of the Peckham Rye Society were invited to join the congregation at Burton Road for the annual Harvest Festival service and thus the old wounds slowly began to heal. (Incidently, it is recorded that the fruits of this service were donated to Guy’s Hospital and transported there in a taxi at the cost of eight shillings!)
Chapter 2 – After 1925
However, although during the next few years similar joint services back and forth were undertaken, complete re-union did not occur until after 1925.
In March of that year, devastated by the loss of its pastor Andrew Czerny, the sudden deaths of some of its leading members and the emigration of others to America, the Peckham Rye Society was closed. Its remaining assets were distributed equally between the building fund of Michael Church and the Colchester Society (this modest donation ultimately forming the nucleus of the current Assembly Fund). The re-unification was a gradual process as former members of the Peckham Rye group slowly began to attend and to become integrated with the Burton Road congregation. A new set of rules for the society agreeable to all members was accepted in October 1926, the General Church Liturgy was introduced in 1927 in place of the former Order of Service unique to the original Burton Road congregation, and at the A.G.M. in June 1927 members from Peckham Rye were for the first time elected to the Board of Finance.
A General Assembly of its world wide membership was held in London in 1928 at the Victoria Halls in Bloomsbury in celebration as it were of this new strength and unity of the General Church in Britain. During the Assembly, Mr Tilson was ordained into the third degree of the priesthood as Bishop Tilson, the first, and currently the only British priest to have been so elevated.
And so began several decades of relatively uneventful tranquillity for the little congregation at Burton Road. Old Minute books indicate that the first candlesticks introduced during this period were purchased with monies remaining from the soldiers’ memorial plaque. We learn too that the building was wired for electricity in 1922 by Victor Tilson. In 1926 a Miss Minnie Gertrude Turner left over £1000 in her will to the pastor to be applied for use at Michael Church and this was used to enable the Society to purchase the building outright. Annual statistics reported to the A.G.M. in 1929 recorded a membership of 102 but an average attendance of only 38 at services and 12 at doctrinal classes. This no doubt reflected the changing circumstances of the membership as few now lived in the Brixton area but were scattered far and wide across greater London and also were affected by the hard financial times of a world wide great depression.
In 1934 to aid the now ageing Bishop Tilson, the General Church sent the Rev. Wynne Acton to London. In 1935 he was appointed officially as Assistant Pastor at Michael Church. Two years later he was warmly welcomed as its new pastor upon the retirement of the much venerated “Father T” after a record 45 years of loyal and dedicated leadership. Thus a new era slowly and gently began.
Innovations came gradually. In 1934 group meetings for doctrinal classes and discussions held in members’ homes in various areas of London were introduced. That same year the first Sunday School was started. The monthly Newsletter to help unite all members of the General Church in Britain, was introduced by Mr Acton in 1939 as also was the annual appointment of reporter for the society to send accounts of its activities to New Church Life.
World War II
World War II and its accompanying bombing of London although causing much physical and emotional strain and stress for members also seemed to strengthen the society in its resolve to carry on its uses and its study of New Church doctrine. In fact when the pastor suggested that doctrinal classes be held once a month following a “bring your own lunch” after the morning church service, he was persuaded by his enthusiastic congregation to schedule this for twice a month instead.
Michael Church came to serve as a unique war-time centre for the whole General Church. Over 83 young men and women from its world wide congregations who served with the allied forces at one time or another came to worship at Michael Church. And the warm and uniting support from its kindred General Church societies was very tangibly evident as welcome parcels of food arrived from congregations in Canada, U.S.A., Australia and South Africa. These parcels made it possible for social gatherings to be held at Michael Church throughout the war. Due to the restrictions caused by blackouts and bombing, these generally took place following the regular morning service.
The organization of these occasions was ably assisted by the newly formed Women’s’ Guild. This was set up in 1942 – just in time to cater for the 50th anniversary commemorative “banquet”. This and other activities of Michael Church during the difficult years of the war are recorded in a delightful manner by Miss Edith Elphick in reports printed in “New Church Life”. These war-time reports end with a description of the Victory Party at the church held on 3rd July 1945 for which decorative baskets of hanging flowers were made out of old tin helmets!
It would appear that Michael Church came through the war in a strengthened position. Several keenly interested new members joined the congregation as well as a very active and enthusiastic group of young people – some “home from the wars” and others having just reached maturity during it. May 1946 seemed to symbolize the ending of one era and the beginning of another; the society regretfully said goodbye to the much-loved pastor Rev. Wynne Acton and his wife Rachel at a social gathering attended by over one hundred friends and soon welcomed the Rev. Martin Pryke as its new pastor.
Mr Pryke had been ministering to the Colchester Society during the war and had been ordained into the second degree of the priesthood by Bishop Tilson shortly before his death in 1942. This ordination was the final pastoral duty of Mr Tilson’s long and distinguished career which had included the baptism of over 480 adults and children into the faith of the New Church.
The new strength and enthusiasm stood the society in good stead during the following period of rather rapid changes. For in June 1950 Mr Pryke left to take up a pastorate in South Africa. He was replaced by the Rev. Kenneth O. Stroh who served as pastor from the summer of 1950 until early in 1952 when the ill health of himself and his wife forced their return to America. His replacement was the Rev. Morley Rich who served the society well as pastor from 1952 until 1955 during the beginning of one of its most active and prosperous periods.
A Small Digression…
In a small booklet attempting to encompass the story of one hundred years, it is not possible to include much detail. However, for the sake of the record it might be useful to digress for a moment to note a few salient points.
The Society was officially registered as a charity in 1946. At that time the annual Treasurer’s Report to the A.G.M. still included the individual names and amounts given by contributors. This was not changed until May 1947 when it was agreed to cease this practice.
During the war the building had suffered damage to the roof. This had been temporarily repaired thanks to the generosity of Miss Creda Glenn in Bryn Athyn but later it was discovered to be in need of further attention and in 1950 the War Damages Commission ultimately paid their share of the total expensive repair costs.
In 1949 for the first time women were elected as members of the society’s house and social committees and were invited to act on the Pastor’s Council.
In 1951 with the financial assistance of the General Church in America, Michael Church purchased a house at 135 Mantilla Road SW17 for use as a manse. The first of a series of battles with dry rot in the basement was commenced in August 1952 as the building began to feel its age. On a happier note, the freehold title to the property was purchased in 1957 and thus at last the Society became the sole owners of its land as well as of its building with the necessary legal trusteeship put in the capable hands of the General Church of the New Jerusalem Council Limited. After many years of discussion the bye laws accepted in 1926 were revised and the new “Articles of Association” were ratified at the A.G.M. in March 1987.
Back to the Story…
But enough of mundane matters. The strength of the society during the immediate post-war years was reflected in the Pastor’s report to the A.G.M. in May of 1953 which noted six baptisms, four betrothals, six marriages and sixty-five doctrinal classes in addition to the regular weekly Sunday services. At the same meeting the Secretary reported that the membership roll had increased from 130 to 152 with the average church attendance having risen from 37 to 52. Thus the society began its second half century in an enthusiastic, happy and optimistic state. This continued throughout the remainder of Mr Rich’s brief pastorate and during those of his immediate successors as families grew in numbers and the Sunday School prospered.
A Second Half Century
As this period is well within living memory of many who will read this booklet, we will only summarize the rest of the century very briefly.
The Rev. Erik Sandstrom served as pastor from 1955 until 1963 and added to and strengthened the congregation in its well established delight in doctrinal matters.
The Rev. Donald Rose took over in 1963 and with gentle good humour led the society through a happy period as the many children in its Sunday School gradually matured and became its enthusiastic young people.
Mr Rose was followed in 1972 by the Rev. Erik E. Sandstrom – returning as pastor of the society to make his home in the same manse where he had spent many of his youthful years. By the time he and his family departed to a new pastorate in Australia in 1981, many of the young folk were beginning to move off to universities or to the Academy College in Bryn Athyn, thus depleting the numbers in the congregation at Burton Road each Sunday, but for the most part, taking with them a strong and abiding love of the New Church and its doctrinal teachings.
Mr Sandstrom’s successor for a brief period was the Rev. Robert McMaster who served as pastor from 1981 until the summer of 1984 and he and his wife and children were the last to occupy the house at 135 Mantilla Road as a manse.
Back to the Present
The society warmly welcomed the newly ordained Rev. F. C. Elphick in 1984 as its Pastor. This could be seen as symbolic of the continuity of essential beliefs held by the congregations which have worshipped at Burton Road during the past one hundred years, for Mr Elphick is the grandson of F Elphick, a very active founder member and designer of the striking canopy above the altar which proclaims to worshippers each Sunday – ADVENTUS DOMINI – The Advent of the LORD.